Newly discovered 'super-Earth' may be the 'most exciting exoplanet'

Posted April 20, 2017

"This is the most exciting exoplanet I've seen in the past decade", said lead author Jason Dittmann of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (Cambridge, USA).

"Super-Earth" is located in the heart of the habitable zone - a region of space where temperatures are mild enough to allow liquid surface water - and it circles a faint dwarf star, LHS 1140, in the Cetus constellation.

In a paper detailing the discovery, the researchers also say they believe the planet has an atmosphere, adding that both star LHS 1140 and planet LHS 1140b are so close to Earth that "telescopes now under construction might be able to search for specific atmospheric gases in the future". During this period, it is possible that radiation from a red dwarf could strip away significant amounts of the water content of a planet's atmosphere, which could induce the kind of conditions we see on Venus today. Many are so far away that it will be a challenge to get to know them.

"What I truly find exciting is that we have a potentially habitable, rocky planet orbiting a nearby star that is now very calm and stable and doesn't flare", Dittman said.

Several years ago he bought a $15,000 US-made 12-inch telescope to begin a search for new exoplanets.

He calls the planet a "Super Earth", not because it's any better than our blue-green sphere, but because it "is somewhere between the size of the Earth (the largest rocky planet in the Solar System) and Neptune".

The planet LHS 1140 b, described in the journal Nature, provides a tempting target for astronomers looking to probe an exoplanet's thin but essential shell of air, which could offer clues about whether such a world could host life.

Currently, the MEarth project is studying small stars that are less than a third the size of the Sun. That's because they're the most abundant stars in the galaxy and some of the easier stars to capture transit signals from. Effectively, the star and the planet orbit around a mutual centre, which falls somewhere inside the star for most planets. Then, to much fanfare, NASA announced the discovery of not one, not two, but seven Earth-sized planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system, which lies just 39 light-years from Earth.

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"This has been a remarkable year for exoplanet discoveries". Such rocky worlds seem a better bet for hosting life than do the puffy gas planets orbiting other stars.

A planet is considered habitable when it's in an area where liquid water might exist. He uses mathematical modelling to boost his observing techniques and maintains that he was simply "in the right place at the right time" to observe LHS 1140b.

The planet orbits a tiny, faint star known as LHS 1140, which is only one-fifth the size of the Sun.

What makes LHS 1140b notable is that it is not bombarded with as much high-energy radiation that batters other planets around similar stars.

An artist rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope that NASA plans to launch in 2018.

To confirm the planet's existence, Dittmann and his team enlisted three academic telescopes and one operated by a crackerjack amateur in Perth, Australia, who kept vigil when bad weather sidelined the pros.

"I hope that we can go after both of these systems' atmospheres so that we can compare them to each other", Dittman said.

"The LHS 1140 system might prove to be an even more important target for the future characterization of planets in the habitable zone than Proxima b or TRAPPIST-1", researchers Xavier Delfosse and Xavier Bonfils said. And that means there's a better chance that this planet may be holding onto some valuable chemicals, like organic molecules and water. "But hopefully someday very soon we can start confronting those theories with real data!"